Roughly midway along the Dhofar coast lies SALALAH (“The Shining One” in the local Jebali language), hemmed in between the spectacular crescent of the Dhofar Mountains on one side and the blue waters of the Arabian Sea on the other. Much of modern Salalah, Oman’s second-largest city (although barely a quarter of the size of Muscat), is not much different from anywhere else in the country. Away from the functional city centre, however, it’s still possible to sense something of the old-time Salalah’s alluringly languid, subtropical magic, with its lush banana plantations, lopsided coconut palms and superb white-sand beaches, more reminiscent of Zanzibar than Muscat – a feeling emphasized by the considerable quantities of African blood swilling around the local gene pool.
Salalah’s exotic appeal is strongest around the old parts of town: in the aromatic alleyways of Al Husn Souk and in the marvellous stretch of palm-fringed beach which spreads along the coast east from here to the remains of the ancient city of Zafar – now protected as the Al Baleed Archeological Park. Inland, the modern city is less striking, but still boasts plenty of contemporary mercantile character, particularly along bustling As Salaam Street and in the engaging New Souk. The city also makes an excellent base for explorations of the region as a whole, putting you within a day-trip of pretty much everywhere worth visiting.
On the beachfront, right next to the sprawling Sultan’s Palace (Al Husn), is the marvellous Al Husn Souk (also known as Al Haffa Souk, after the district in which it’s situated), a pretty little area of small shops arranged around a neat grid of pedestrianized alleyways. This is one of the most interesting souks in Oman, particularly famous for its frankincense, bukhoor and attar (perfumes). Various rare types of local frankincense can be found here: shazri, sha’abi, najdi and, perhaps finest of all, hawjari (or hasiki) from the wadis around Hasik. Many of the stalls selling aromatics are run by veiled female traders – you may find bargaining with someone when you can only see their eyes a little disconcerting.
Frankincense has been one of Oman’s most famous and highly prized natural products since antiquity, and its heady aroma is never far away, wafting out of everything from homes, mosques and souks through to modern office blocks and hotel lobbies, providing the country with an instantly recognizable olfactory signature. The majority of the world’s supply is now harvested in Somalia, while Yemen is also a major producer, although Omani frankincense – particularly that from Dhofar – is generally considered the finest.
Frankincense (in Arabic, luban) is a type of resin obtained from one of four trees of the Boswellia genus, particularly the Boswellia sacra, which thrives in the semi-arid mountainous regions around Salalah, often surviving in the most inhospitable conditions and sometimes appearing to grow straight out of solid rock. These distinctive trees are short and rugged, rarely exceeding 5m in height (and frequently shorter), often with a shrub-like cluster of branches rising straight from the ground, rather than a single trunk, and with a peeling, papery bark.
Frankincense is collected by making – or “tapping” – small incisions into the bark, causing the tree to secrete a resin, which is allowed to dry and harden into so-called “tears”. Tapping and collection is a skilled but often arduous profession, now mostly done by expat Somalis. Trees start producing resin when they are around ten years old, after which they are tapped two or three times a year. Virtually all frankincense is taken from trees growing in the wild – the difficulty of cultivating the trees means that they’re not generally farmed on a commercial scale, in the manner of, say, dates, adding to the resin’s mystique.
There are many varieties of frankincense, sorted by hand and graded according to colour, purity and aroma. “Silver” (also known as Hojari) frankincense is generally considered the highest grade. The whiter and purer the colour, the better the grade. More yellowish varieties are less highly valued, while at the bottom of the scale come the rather blackish Somali varieties. The resin is then mixed with coals and burnt in a frankincense burner, ranging from simple clay pots to the colourfully painted examples favoured in Dhofar.
Frankincense is a key element in traditional Omani life; a frankincense burner is traditionally passed from hand to hand after a meal in order to perfume clothes, hair and beards; it is also used as an ingredient in numerous perfumes, as well as in Omani bukhoor. Besides its aromatic properties, frankincense has many practical uses. Its smoke repels mosquitoes, while certain types of frankincense resin are also edible, and are widely used in traditional Arabian and Asian medicines to promote healthy digestion and skin. Even more cutting-edge medical uses for the resin are currently being investigated, including its use as a treatment for Crohn’s disease, osteoarthritis and even cancer.